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False/misleading Reuters headline on stem cell research

FDA allows first test of human stem cell therapy

So declares the headline to this Reuters article. Health writer Maggie Fox is either intentionally misstating the facts, ignorant of the truth, or deliberately moving the goal posts when it come to human stem cell clinical trials.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has cleared the way for the first trial to see if human embryonic stem cells can treat people safely
The key word left out of the headline is "embryonic". There are 1,300+ human clinical trials currently underway using adult stem cells - in addition to the hundreds of adult stem cell treatments already in use. The FDA approving a human clinical trial for an ESC treatment is big enough news in itself there's no reason to file the story using such a misleading headline.
Stem cells are the body's master cells, giving rise to all the tissues, organs and blood. Embryonic stem cells are considered the most powerful kinds of stem cells, as they have the potential to give rise to any type of tissue.

Researchers are also trying to find ways to use so-called adult stem cells, taken from bone marrow and elsewhere in the body, and have learned how to transform ordinary skin cells into stem-like cells. But scientists argue that no one knows which route will work so all avenues must be pursued.

Again a bit of a misnomer as ESC aren't necessarily the most powerful, they are merely the easiest to coax into differentiating. The author mentions in an off-hand, passing manner that scientists have also differentiated ASC into cells from all three germ layers. While there still remains much research to be done towards creating ASC that can reliably replicate themselves, it is hardly a passing accomplishment when one takes into account the ethical concerns and physiological issues associated with ESC treatments.
The Phase I trial will be designed to show that patients do not develop tumors, or damage to their nervous systems. But Okarma believes it will also indicate whether the stem cells might repair the damaged spinal cords.
The most serious impediment to human ESC trials to date has been the tendency of ESCs to form tumors known as teratoma. The goal of this trial is to use ESC to repair spinal damage, but the initial phase is first and foremost focused on monitoring the potential negative outcomes. An ESC treatment that does not lead to teartoma formation would indeed be a tremendous step forward in stem cell research.

The political debate surrounding embryonic stem cell research has little to do with its likelihood of yielding successful therapies. Human ESC, obviously, must be taken from human embryos. As long as people still debate when human life begins there will not be a policy that satisfies everyone. Research policy under GWBush was a compromise that left no one particularly pleased - which is to say it was probably the most reasonable policy one could expect from a "pro-life" president.

It is also worth noting that foreign ESC research unbridled from the restrictions imposed by Bush haven't had any human trial approved to date. So despite the gnashing of teeth about the US falling behind in the stem cell treatment derby, we - as usual - lead the world in medical breakthroughs.

The underlying issue is access to additional federal funds for research. Free of ethical concerns and with a growing portfolio of potential treatments undergoing human trials, adult stem cell research attracts the vast majority of private (i.e. investor) funding. Naturally, investors want to be reasonably sure they will recoup their investment through viable and marketable treatment regimens. Hence the continued outcry for more public funding of embryonic research.

This newly approved trial probably won't create a groundswell of new private funding in ESC research companies, but a successful outcome could indeed go a long way towards easing investor concerns about the efficacy of ESC treatments.

Let's face it, the first company that can develop a safe and effective treatment to repair spinal/nerve damage will have a proverbial license to print money. Ditto for Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and a host of other ailments.

When the subject of stem cell research is discussed, it is important to remember that there are exciting possibilities with both embryonic and adult stem cells. We should also keep in mind that despite 50+ years of research the first human trial using ESC is only now being approved. Viable therapies are still decades away. We shouldn't put all the eggs in one basket and ignore or minimize discoveries made based on ideological reasons. But the ethical concerns are real and valid, so the goal should be finding an acceptable middle ground that allows research without squelching anyone's beliefs.

Based on the headline, it isn't difficult to discern where Reuters' bias lies.


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Comments (13)

You know what I want to see... (Below threshold)

You know what I want to see from stem cell research? Therapies to regrow the hair cells in your inner ear, restoring hearing when its damaged. And while we're at it, how about regrowing teeth - and restoring rods and cones in the macula and fovia of the human eye?

Give me the vision and hearing I had when I was ten or so... Fixing the wear and tear on my back and knees would be good too!

Josef Mengele, were he aliv... (Below threshold)
P. Bunyan:

Josef Mengele, were he alive today, would be proud, I think.

"It is also worth noting... (Below threshold)

"It is also worth noting that foreign ESC research unbridled from the restrictions imposed by Bush haven't had any human trial approved to date."

Citations, analyses, any kind of proof of that whatsoever, please?

Until your mythical flying spaghetti monster comes down to cure his creation's diseases that REAL, ACTUAL beings are suffering from, scientists need to have the tools to work on them.

I'm a relatively young person, pushing 30. My personal history of presidents consists of Ron Reagan when I was a child, vague memories of Bush 1 and the first Iraq War, 8 years of peace and prosperity (with god forbid, a blowjob thrown in), and the historical train-wreck of Bush 2 that has set America back to the Stone Age.

Ryan,Feel free to ... (Below threshold)
Baron Von Ottomatic:


Feel free to Google your own references and let me know what you find.

Nowhere in my post did I state opposition to ESC research, but you assume I don't want to see ESC research conducted based on religious objections.

FWIW, a "mythical flying spaghetti monster" and religion have nothing to do with my ethical concerns regarding ESC. I think the question of when life begins is legitimate. I'm sure with a bit of snooping you'd find bioethicists have widely differing opinions on how ESC research should be approached as well.

Would you support using prisoners sentenced to death for medical experiments? If ending a life to benefit medical research is acceptable it stands to reason we should utilize every being whose life has been deemed forfeit to advance medical science.

Who is worse, people like me who believe the ethics of stem cell research should be approached cautiously or people who claim that - but for Bush - wheelchair bound people would be dancing the Charleston today thanks to ESC treatments? The allure of ESC is completely founded in "potential". We are still decades away from viable ESC treatments, and that assumes their natural tendency to form tumors can be overcome.

Good take down of Ryan's f... (Below threshold)

Good take down of Ryan's feeble attempt at an argument.

I work on a University campus that has gotten tens of millions of dollars in funding for ESC research. Thanks for including that President Bush did not ban the research, he just blocked the use of Federal funds for it. The left has consistently promoted lies until they become their "reality".

"Would you support using... (Below threshold)

"Would you support using prisoners sentenced to death for medical experiments?"

Absolutely not. But then, I don't agree with the death penalty at all. #1, IMO no matter how horrible a crime someone committed, I don't think a fellow human being is ever entitled to take that individual's life. Might as well call "state-sanctioned murder."

But I have no problem whatsoever with research being done on a non-sentient, pre-human cluster of cells, hundreds of thousands of which are sitting in fertility clinic freezers as we speak, if it can help to find cures for horrible diseases that real, sentient, living beings are suffering from.

Time out, Baron. Has the FD... (Below threshold)
Dave Noble:

Time out, Baron. Has the FDA previously tested an adult stem cell therapy? If not, the headline is accurate.

Further. even if those 1,300 clinical trials you cite are in fact FDA trials, the severe limitations on ESC research under the Bush Adminstration have canted the table.

Ryan,Funny thing, ... (Below threshold)
Baron Von Ottomatic:


Funny thing, many people who fully support the death penalty are opposed to ending an innocent life through abortion/ESC. Conversely, you don't support the DP for even the vilest murderers but have no worries about ending an innocent life for medical research.

So goes the ethical conundrum. There will never be a black and white answer to "at what point does a cluster of cells become human?" At least not one that satisfies everyone.

Do you believe there should be any restrictions on which point in a pregnancy abortions can still be performed? A fetus is a non-sentient cluster of cells at 8.5 months. Even at conception they are already human cells.

I don't oppose ESC research, I just believe we need to fully consider (and be sensitive to) the ethical ramifications.

Dave,Those 1,300+ ... (Below threshold)
Baron Von Ottomatic:


Those 1,300+ trials are FDA-approved human clinical trials (all clinical trials must be FDA approved...well, any trials of new medications, etc.). That is in addition to the hundreds of already approved treatments using ASC. Bone marrow transplants are one that's been around for decades; there are some that renew pancreatic tissue/function for diabetes available now as well. Other ASC trials are focused on the same sorts of neurological recovery as the newly approved ESC trial.

As I mentioned in the post, the biggest obstacle to successful ESC treatments isn't a Bush-imposed lack of funding. It is the ESC's proclivity to form teratoma (monster tumors), in addition to tissue rejection problems (i.e. requiring immunosuppression).

FWIW, the state of California passed a bond committing something like $3-4 billion to ESC research. The restrictions are on federal funding, not on the research itself.

The standard of what is and... (Below threshold)

The standard of what is and is not "alive" is something that will probably never be put to rest.

Obviously a 25 week old fetus is more "alive" than the hundreds of thousands of embryos "living" in freezers of fertility clinics.

Nothing "lives" in a freezer. If scientists decided that the pot roast currently "living" in my freezer has the potential ability to cure paralysis, cancers, parkinson's disease etc. in real living things, than by all means they can have it.

FWIW, the state of Californ... (Below threshold)
Dave Noble:

FWIW, the state of California passed a bond committing something like $3-4 billion to ESC research. The restrictions are on federal funding, not on the research itself.

So are you suggesting that restricting federal funding for one type of research, while permitting it for another, gives no advantage to the federally funded research?

Dave,Government fu... (Below threshold)
Baron Von Ottomatic:


Government funded foreign research hasn't solved the biological issues inherit to ESC either. The disparity of trials is a result of the characteristics of ESC vs. ASC.

A better question is, if the potential is so great why does ESC research have difficulty attracting private funding?

Baron,You didn't a... (Below threshold)
Dave Noble:


You didn't answer my question. It is often said that the United States has the best medical research facilities in the world.
Federal funding is a key aspect of that research as with all research.
Why shouldn't those facilities be pursuing stem cell research, adult and embryonic with federal funding that is unbiased by religious constraints?

Yes, teratomas are a problem with ESCs. But Geron, unaided by federal funding appears to have solved that problem to the satifaction of the FDA. How much better would it be if federal funding were available for all potentially beneficial research?






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